Seven games into the new season and everything is looking rosy in Bilbao. Having already dispelled the notion that coaches “shouldn’t go back” once, the early signs are that Ernesto Valverde might just do it all over again in what is his third stint in charge of the Athletic Club.
The Basque giants are riding high in 3rd place having won 5 of their opening 7 LaLiga matches. A team whose major weakness in recent years has been an inability to score goals, has netted four on three occasions already this term. On the surface, it’s a radical transformation, particularly when their relative lack of summer transfer activity is taken into account.
Building on solid foundations
It’s quite easy to jump to conclusions about the former regime, when a new coach comes in and results and performances immediately improve. While there are clearly areas where Valverde has found fresh solutions that have reaped rapid rewards, it’s important to backtrack a little and say that Athletic were by no means a broken entity under the guidance of Marcelino who left his post in June.
Indeed, there were many in Bilbao who were very keen for the 57 year old to stay on. Publicly, Marcelino’s unwillingness to get involved with the uncertainty of the summer presidential election campaign was a major factor in his decision to leave after less than 18 months in charge. Privately, there may have been a sense that he didn’t really have the tools at his disposal to truly kick on from an 8th place finish last season. He has also been widely touted as a potential successor to Luis Enrique with the Spanish national team and reports that he has only this week turned down an approach from Sevilla, would suggest he is holding out for that role should it be vacated after the World Cup.
Under Marcelino’s guidance, Athletic were very solid defensively with just 36 goals conceded in LaLiga last season, a better record than Barcelona and Atletico Madrid and the 3rd best in the division overall. They competed well against the big clubs and frequently got the better of them.
Despite only taking over in January, Marcelino’s Athletic managed to record victories over all of the top four before the 2020/21 season was out, including the Supercopa triumph in the opening weeks of his reign. The 2021/22 season also delivered memorable cup victories over Barcelona and Real Madrid, as well as two more wins against Atleti. On that front, Athletic punched well above their weight under Marcelino, with his counter-attacking philosophy used effectively by what the coach described as “the best group of people I have ever coached in my 20 years in this profession”.
However, it was against the lesser likes where Athletic all too frequently came unstuck with an over-dependence on Iker Muniain for creative inspiration and a lack of quality in the final third very striking at times.
What changes has Valverde made?
As is often the case in Bilbao, given the club’s “Basque only” transfer policy, it was not a particularly active summer. There were only two new arrivals. One was forward Gorka Guruzeta who arrived on a free transfer from an Amorebieta side that was relegated from the Segunda Division last term. The other was a bigger name in the shape of Ander Herrera, but it’s fair to say there were and continue to be doubts about his current level at the age of 33 having been something of a bit-part player for PSG in recent years.
Neither has made a start yet this season, meaning Athletic’s stunning form and sudden ability to put the weaker teams to the sword, has been achieved with essentially the same team that averaged just 1.13 goals per game last season, a worse record than two of the sides that went down. The picture gets all the more puzzling when you consider that Iker Munain is yet to score or assist a goal since Valverde’s appointment, having had a hand in roughly a third of his team’s goals last year.
So, what exactly has changed?
The most notable shift has come in midfield. Only three Athletic players racked up more LaLiga minutes than Unai Vencedor last season under Marcelino, but the 21 year old has found himself way down the pecking order this term, making just two brief substitute appearances. Instead, Oihan Sancet has impressed operating in a much deeper role than we’ve previously seen him while Mikel Vesga has competed with Dani Garcia for a start alongside him with the returning Herrera also a peripheral figure at this point.
Muniain has been utilised in a more central position with Nico Williams and Alex Berenguer both cementing themselves as the first choice options out wide with three goals apiece and a series of impressive displays. Iñaki Williams has continued to lead the line and is clearly enjoying the chance to link up with Nico, with the Williams brothers providing assists for one another in the 4-0 win over Almeria last time out.
Unquestionably, it is the younger Williams brother who has been the breakout star so far this term for Athletic. His transformation from an exciting young player with bags of potential, to somebody capable of making decisive and potentially match-winning contributions, has happened faster than anyone could have seriously expected. The 20 year old didn’t have a single LaLiga goal or assist to his name before this season, but has five already in seven games since this campaign started and has also thrust himself into serious contention for a place in Spain’s World Cup squad by setting up Alvaro Morata’s vital late winner in La Roja’s recent Nations League win in Portugal.
His rapid improvement would certainly have been a welcome boost for Valverde, although some tactical tweaks may also help explain both Nico and Athletic’s ability to produce more in the final third. There is clearly a willingness to spend more time on the ball on and look to dominate games against weaker opponents and it’ll be interesting to see whether that approach continues in the tougher games that lie ahead, or whether Valverde will take a bit more inspiration from his predecessor who enjoyed such a strong record against the big guns with this group of players.
Tougher tests lie ahead
The excitement over the start Athletic have made is understandable but it is certainly also true that they’ve had a very kind schedule until this point. Those three victories where they scored four all came against the teams currently in the relegation zone. They’ve not faced a single team currently in the top eight and 5 of their opening 7 fixtures have been at San Mames. No other side has played so many times at home.
Excluding the Almeria match given they were not in the top flight last season, Athletic’s other six fixtures have yielded 13 points, only 2 more than Marcelino’s side picked up from the corresponding matches last term.
Their next seven games see them face three of last season’s top four, as well as Villarreal who may turn out to be one of their rivals for European qualification. Given they only finished one place off European football last term, that has to be the goal now for Ernesto Valverde and his team this season and we should have a much clearer idea of their level by the time LaLiga breaks up for the World Cup a little over a month from now.
Athletic’s remaining fixtures before the World Cup
|October 8th||Sevilla (A)|
|October 15th||Atletico Madrid (H)|
|October 18th||Getafe (A)|
|October 23rd||Barcelona (A)|
|October 30th*||Villarreal (H)|
|November 6th*||Girona (A)|
|November 9th*||Real Valladolid (H)|
The way Sevilla have been playing, Athletic have nothing to fear from their weekend trip to the Ramon Sanchez-Pizjuan, although their opponents will be under new management which could make it a bit trickier.
The two acid tests may be those next two home games against Atletico Madrid and Villarreal. They’ll shed some light as to just how much confidence Ernesto Valverde has in these players and whether he believes this new, more attacking approach can also deliver results against the stronger sides.
Valverde is a pragmatist though and has shown throughout his coaching career that he’s willing to adapt his methods to suit different situations and different groups of players. Even in a job he knows so well, he will still be learning and he will know that results will not continue to come as easily and frequently as they have so far.
He won’t be getting carried away but Athletic’s fanbase can certainly afford to feel optimistic about how this side is shaping up. With a coach they know and love and some bright young talents starting to shine, there’s no reason why Athletic can’t have their best season since their last one under Ernesto Valverde – a 7th place finish in 2016/17.